Harvard to Search for How Life Began

According to Mormon doctrine, life is coeternal with God. That is, it never started. There has always been life in the universe. There never was a beginning. If that is true, then this project at Harvard is going to spend millions of dollars over a period of years that will produce nothing. Sigh. I wish science would spend more time and money investigating in more profitable areas. This money could be better used for investigating ways that humans can live comfortably, safely and profitably in space, something that cannot be learned by the use of robot probes on unmanned missions.

Consider these words from our wonderful hymn, If You Could Hie to Kolob:

If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Me thinks the Spirit whispers,
“No man has found ‘pure space,’
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place.”

The works of God continue,
And worlds and lives abound;
Improvement and progression
Have one eternal round.
There is no end to matter;
There is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit;
There is no end to race.

There is no end to virtue;
There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom;
There is no end to light.
There is no end to union;
There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood;
There is no end to truth.

There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no death above.
There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no death above.

Where is the beginning of life in this scenario? This hymn makes me so happy. I am so glad that I have this little bit of understanding. Considering it all, it makes some of the efforts of man seem rather silly, like this new “Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative” at Harvard.

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20 Responses to Harvard to Search for How Life Began

  1. Geoff J says:

    I had lunch with Blake last a few month ago and heard his presentation at the SMPT conference and my understanding is that God that is in fact what he believes. I think he will spell that out in his new book (which should have been out by now).

  2. Is that what Blake really believes? I thought that his position was that God is more of a title which can be filled by various people, and as such “God” has no father. The individual who is now “God” did, however, have a father. At least that’s how I read him.

  3. Geoff J says:

    Jeffrey: No Mormon claims that God didn’t have a spirit Father.

    This isn’t true. As I understand his position, Blake Ostler is among the Mormons that claim God the Father has no father himself, but rather that he is the ultimate and supreme God in existence.

  4. will says:

    Jeff’s right about the JFM quote. Holding apostles and professors to the same standard is hardly a validation of apostolic authority.

  5. John,

    So I guess you are sticking with defining life as “human life” which again begs the question as whether other forms of life had a beginning or not. I simply see no reason found within scripture or the gospel to exclude the possibility of life spontaneously being produced. If it were about to happen would God prevent it? If so, why? And if it can or cannot happen the Harvard project will shed light on the subject. Either way your negative approach isn’t all that accurate. Yes, my source was Extensions of Power and in his appendix Quinn doesn’t provide sources for his quotes, as juicy as they are.

    Your telling of the JFM episode is very enlightening in this context.

    “That is, if she ever said anything that proved to be incorrect should her students disregard everything else she said?”

    This is a powerful argument against knowledge by authority, in other words against religion, and is actually very pro-science. If a prophet does say something wrong, then why should I accept everything else he says as true? That is the very point. Of course we shouldn’t simply disregard any statement made by somebody who has errored in the past, but we certainly shouldn’t accept every statement either. Instead, we should look at the evidence for and against any given proposition. But wait! This is exactly what the scientists are doing. They aren’t automatically accepting or rejecting what prophet, ancient and modern, say on the subject of life because they have been wrong in the past and could be wrong now as well. Instead they are looking for evidence which isn’t wrong for the reason that it isn’t conscious. Of course such evidence needs interpretation, but then again so do prophetic statements.

  6. Jared says:

    Thanks! I have subscribed to LDS-GEMS for a long time. That must be where I saw it. I’ll have to look back through emails I saved to see if I can find it.

  7. From:

    On Second Thought: Growing up as a son of Bruce R. McConkie By Joseph Fielding McConkie

    Growing up as a son of Bruce R. McConkie and a grandson of Joseph Fielding Smith had its moments. One of the experiences that my brothers and sisters and I shared regularly was to listen to people make disparaging remarks about our father or grandfather in Sunday School or other church classes. You could pretty well depend on the fact that if someone quoted either Elder McConkie or President Smith, that someone else would immediately respond with some kind of an insulting retort. I don’t think it bothered any of us to have someone disagree with our father or grandfather, we just couldn’t understand why the disagreement seemed so mean-spirited.

    One of the classic responses that is made to discredit anything Joseph Fielding Smith said is to remind everyone that he said that men would never get to the moon. The idea being that if he said one thing that was incorrect then how can we possibly be expected to believe anything else he said.

    Let me illustrate how silly this kind of thing gets. The other day a student at BYU told me that Joseph Fielding Smith was quoted in their class discussion. Apparently what he said wasn’t headed in the direction the professor wanted to go, so she simply discarded it with the standard, “Yes, but you must remember he also said that men would never get to the moon.”

    The student asked me how I would have responded in that situation. It seems to me that an appropriate response might have been to ask if the professor was to be held to the same standard? That is, if she ever said anything that proved to be incorrect should her students disregard everything else she said? If so, she certainly did say something irresponsible in the manner by which she so lightly dismissed what President Smith said.

    As to the men on the moon issue, I was present on at least one occasion when President Smith said it. It was a Sunday dinner at our house. My grandfather, Oscar W. McConkie, had asked President Smith if he thought the Lord would allow us to get to other worlds and communicate with the people on them. President Smith indicated that he did not. He reasoned that because the atonement that Christ worked out on this earth applies to all the creations of the Father, that our getting to other worlds and discovering that they had the same Savior and the same plan of salvation would dispense with the necessity of our accepting the gospel on the basis of faith. To dramatize the point he said, “I don’t even think the Lord will let men get to the moon.”

    I concurred with President Smith’s reasoning then and do so now. What he said, in my judgement, was right. The illustration he used to dramatize his point has since proven to be in error. It, however, has nothing to do with the point he was making. To dismiss everything else he said on the basis of one faulty illustration is, I would suggest, a far greater error and may frankly be grounds to question whether those saying it deserve credence, not whether Joseph Fielding Smith does.

    Joseph Fielding McConkie

    I received this on January 13, 1999 from the LDS-GEMS email list. The list was run by Dave Crockett and David Kenison who were among the early contributors of my Zion email discussion list.

  8. Jared says:

    It looks like Jeff’s quote comes from Quinn’s Extentions of Power. I don’t own the book, so I don’t know what the ultimate source is.

  9. Jared says:

    “Except for a comment made at the dinner table by Joseph Fielding Smith”

    I know that Joseph Fielding McConkie has talked about this, but for the life of me I can’t find it.

    Do you have a reference?

    Regarding Jeff’s quote, I’m not sure where he got the quote from, but I found this (note 79).

  10. will says:

    A few points:

    1. These researchers are not expecting to find a definitive answer on how life began. They are only trying to demonstrate in detail how it could have happened, thus closing one gap for God-of-the-gaps proponents. Given the educational proposals of certain politicians, this study is quite pertinent.

    2. The debate over when life began is moot until we define life. Are viruses alive? How about computer viruses?

    3. Biological life certainly had a beginning in this biosphere, whether it emerged from a primordial cocktail or was planted here in its current form 6000 years ago. Theories about deities possessing mortal bodies in other spheres are irrelevant to this study, and to science as a whole.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Mormon doctrine, as I understand it, teaches that life in the universe is “one eternal round.” It never began.

    I don’t believe that Mormon doctrine has anything to say on the age of the universe and when or how life first came to be in the universe.

    I’m only familar with concepts like eternity and generations of time.

    The hubris you ascribe to science (“like a child playing with a chemistry set”) is, I believe, more apparent in the religious who dable without knowlege or reason in things which they don’t comprehend.

  12. As anyone knows who has been through the temple, one cannot have “spirit children” until after the resurrection. Therefore, if Heavenly Father had a Heavenly Father, that father must have had a resurrected body too. And since a person has to pass through mortality before he can become resurrected, they all had mortal bodies at one time as well. And if the line of Heavenly Fathers goes back forever, as Joseph Smith taught, they all had mortal bodies and then resurrected bodies, not just spirit bodies.

    Where in this scheme of things is there room for life to “begin?”

    Mormon doctrine, as I understand it, teaches that life in the universe is “one eternal round.” It never began. Life is just as coeternal with God as “intelligence, element and law.” Besides, how could there be intelligence without life?

  13. May 14,1961 – Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith announces to stake conference in Honolulu: “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.” Smith, the Twelve’s president and next in succession as LDS President, adds: “The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.” In May 1962, he privately instructs that this view be taught to “the boys and girls in the Seminary System.”

    Do you have a source for this, Jeffrey?

  14. Jared says:

    Oh yes, and scientists are not Vulcans. There is lots of exploration, following hunches and gut feelings–faith, if you will. But the scientific community demands results. Usually a judgment of “no evidence” come after looking into the matter and coming up empty-handed. (And even that doesn’t stop some who think that their hypothesis will ultimately be vindicated.)

  15. ed says:

    Ancient email, circa 1500:

    I reade that this “Copernicus” fellowe is searching for evidences that the Earth doth move about the Sun, and not t’other way round. Why does he wish to waste his tyme, when the Holy Word of God declares that the Sun surely doth move around the Earth? If this foolishness is allowed to continue, soone some rogue will be suggesting that we spende our gold “investigating ways that humans can live comfortably, safely and profitably in space.” Heaven forfend!

  16. Jared says:

    Just lost my comment–very frustrating. Jeff gets at some of what I was going to say.

    “Perhaps science can “create” life. It is certainly arrogant enough to try…”

    Arrogant? Why? Do you find research into artifical intelligence arrogant?

    Find some joy in discovery–even if it doesn’t have immediate practical value.

  17. You appear to be right about it only having been 1 Mormon prophet claiming this, but it was hardly a mere side note spoken over dinner:

    May 14,1961 – Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith announces to stake conference in Honolulu: “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.” Smith, the Twelve’s president and next in succession as LDS President, adds: “The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.” In May 1962, he privately instructs that this view be taught to “the boys and girls in the Seminary System.”

    Of course we could talk about how both Joseph and Brigham thought that it might be possible to get to the moon, in order to preach to its human inhabitants but that’s another subject I suppose.

    “Joseph Smith taught that Heavenly Father had a Heavenly Father going back forever. I don’t see how that can be reconciled with life having a beginning unless at some point a Heavenly Father was lifeless which is ridiculous.”

    Are you talking about human life, or spirit life, or life altogether. Nobody claims that there are any mortal human beings who didn’t have a father. No Mormon claims that God didn’t have a spirit Father. I don’t see what either of these ideas have to do with the beginnings of life here on earth. You are going to have to provide the evidence supporting this connection.

    “And there is certainly no evidence at all that there was ever a beginning to life.”

    Oh c’mon. There is lots of evidence that the universe and the earth had beginnngs. There is no evidence to suggest that life came from somewhere else. Life clearly “showed up” on earth in very basic forms as soon as the earth could possibly support it. We can trace the development of life all the way back to its very primitive beginnings here on earth. I’m not sure what else you need for evidence.

  18. Except for a comment made at the dinner table by Joseph Fielding Smith about man never reaching the moon, I am unaware that “many a prophet also argued that man should not waste its time and money trying to reach space….” Maybe you could provide me with some references, Jeffrey?

    Also, I believe that you are wrong about it not being Mormon doctrine that life is coeternal with God. Joseph Smith taught that Heavenly Father had a Heavenly Father going back forever. I don’t see how that can be reconciled with life having a beginning unless at some point a Heavenly Father was lifeless which is ridiculous.

    It doesn’t matter, looking for the beginning of something that has no beginning isn’t the most stupid thing that mankind has ever done. Maybe he will learn something interesting in the process even if he never finds “the beginning” of life. Normally though, science doesn’t have enough faith to look for something for which there is no evidence whatever. And there is certainly no evidence at all that there was ever a beginning to life.

    Perhaps science can “create” life. It is certainly arrogant enough to try, just like Dr. Frankenstein. I’m not holding my breath though. Such undertakings remind me of a small child playing with a chemistry set.

  19. Then again, many a prophet also argued that man should not waste its time and money trying to reach space for IT would never happen. I’ve always found it wise to be careful about what we say science CAN’T do, for mankind has almost always turned out to be wrong in such instances.

    Mormon doctrine says that intelligence, element and law are all coeternal with God, but it never says that life is as well. Joseph and Brigham said that every living thing has what we would call parents and this led Brigham to suggest, with claiming revelation, transplantation of all life from a previous sphere.

    I would also be careful in your definition of “life” in this case. What is the definition of “life?” Scientists don’t have too clear of an answer, but I think Stuart Kauffman’s is as good as any: “life is a auto catalytic system which is capable of performing at least one work cycle.” Thus he is able to suggest in his book “Investigations” that the earliest forms of life most certainly came from auto catalytic chemical systems. This process, he maintains, would not have been a “one in a million shot” that some claim it to be, but would have been, given the favorable environment which earth provided, rather probably. Perhaps even inevitable. Of course saying that it could have happened that way is not the same as saying that it DID happen that way and a lot of work still needs to be done on the matter.

    I guess my point is that we shouldn’t be too sure of ourselves in this matter.

  20. Judy Jones says:

    This is my favorite hymn. I wish we sang it in church more often.

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